If 19th century philanthropist Gardner Colby is the namesake and savior of Colby College, what of Sarah Davison Colby, the woman who raised him along the Kennebec River and saw her son go from modest beginnings to become a successful Boston industrialist?
That Gardner Colby gave the College $50,000 to rescue it from financial crisis in 1864 is remarkable. His mother’s story, fictionalized by her descendant Cynthia Lang, is in some ways more remarkable still, as the single-mother persevered through financial reversals and eventually flourished.
Lang based her story on a 40-page letter Sarah Davison Colby wrote (under the name Sarah Carlisle) to a nephew in 1840, reassuring him during hard times. “Having known what such adversity is, I can appreciate the distress you are in.”
And well she did. Lang’s carefully rendered account, including verbatim quotes from a transcription of the letter, takes us back to the Kennebec River towns of the dawn of the 19th century, when shipbuilding was a burgeoning industry. Davison Colby’s husband (in a marriage that her parents wouldn’t bless) and Gardner’s father, Josiah Colby, was an entrepreneur shipbuilder in Bowdoinham, below Augusta, who rode the wave of booming American trade. Colby built ships, opened a chandlery business, and ordered fine furniture from abroad. Life was good, and then came the Embargo Act of 1807, prohibiting trade with Britain, and the War of 1812, which disrupted shipping even more. The highly leveraged shipbuilding industry ran aground. Josiah Colby never recovered.
“Crushed with disappointments, numb from the shock of his losses, blurred from drink, and unfit for work, my husband could not enjoy, let alone protect, what remained to him—his wife and children,” Sarah laments in Lang’s story.
The young mother took over, going to work as a seamstress and later moving to Waterville. She scrimped and saved while her husband did odd work to keep himself in rum. “Over Christmas I attended an illumination at the college, where a bright candle shone in every window. I met the head, a Rev. Jeremiah Chaplin, and his wife, a very pleasant, open woman.”
Chaplin offered counsel, and it was decided that Sarah would leave Waterville alone for Boston. She did, became a dressmaker, and was reunited with her children. Her son, Gardner, opened a store, and in his first year made $3,000 profit. The rest is history, and a lovely story that gives readers a sense of the people who lived and worked around then Waterville College and new respect and admiration for those who have gone before.
More about Sarah Carlisle’s River at cynthialang.com